sprite writes
broodings from the burrow

December 12, 2018

virtual advent tour 2018: day 12
posted by soe 6:43 am

Virtual Advent Tour 2018, hosted by spritewrites.net

Greetings, Virtual Advent Tourists! I hope today, the 12th day of the 12th month, finds you well.

I’m pleased to announce that today’s host is a special guest. You may recall that earlier in the month, I mentioned that my dad is a big fan of Christmas music. He is also a reader of this blog (as is my mom), commenting occasionally as DOD. He has been following this year’s Virtual Advent Tour and has written a pair of essays relating to Christmas music for our enjoyment. (This is not DOD’s first contribution to the Virtual Advent Tour; he also penned a piece in 2016.) Today, I’m pleased to publish the first one on his behalf.

Take it away, DOD!

Early Christmas Carols

If you search for the earliest of Christmas carols, you may be disappointed by what you find. The farther back you go, the less likely you will be able to sing along. Also, the actual author of a carol may be hard to pinpoint. The farther back, the harder it gets; no Wikipedia back then. While the majority of the most popular Christmas hymns will date back to the centuries 16 to 20, a few date back to times when monks seem to have held performance rights.

So you may always know the difference, hymns are religious songs and usually somber, carols are dance music people sing along to. There seems to be some agreement that the earliest carol was “Jesus Refulsit Omnium” (“Jesus, Light of All the Nations”) written by St. Hilary of Poitier back in the 4th Century. Hilary was big into the Psalms, and while definitive authorship of any specific is murky, he is given the nod as the first Latin Christian Hymn writer. Surprise, surprise, you can hear or purchase “Jesus Refulsit Omnium” on some Bach works via iTunes or Amazon. I wouldn’t look for it on a Michael Bublé or Katy Perry album. But I digress.

I’d like to call your attention to three if not oldest, then certainly among the elders of popular carols, all of which I (and probably you) have in a record (read tape, cd or digital download) collection. The first is recommended to us by Peter Tork of the Monkees. The song is “Riu Riu Chi” which the group sang on their tv show and later issued on disk. The song is a 15th century Spanish villancico, a medieval dance form. The carol was first published in 1556 in Venice. The song is a narrative sung by a kingfisher (hence the title) and describes how God protected the Virgin Mary from an evil villain (here characterized as a wolf.) Including angels and shepherds in a Christmas celebration is quite popular. The fifth verse is translated:

I saw a thousand Angels who were singing, flying around, chanting in a thousand voices, saying to the shepherds Glory in Heaven and peace on earth for Jesus is born.

Way to go kingfisher. Peter Tork has been quoted as saying it was his favorite Monkees song because it was the only one they performed a capella. It, too, is available on iTunes and Amazon Music, and is a bonus on this year’s Monkees’ Christmas Party album on some cds sold at Target (commercial not intended). Nice song and well performed by Peter and the boys.

The second is a rather upbeat carol, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” a very popular carol of the 16th century. At a time when hymns were straitlaced and religious, this one was relatively fast and easy to dance to. I’d give it an 8 on Rate this Record. Why people are sometimes confused by this song is the change in definition of some of the language, especially the title. The first bit of clarification is the word merry. While we all think of it as meaning people in good spirits, it originally meant mighty rather than happy. To further clarify the intent of the author, you should know that the word rest originally meant make. So the call to Christians was God make you Mighty. Save us all from Satan’s power (and get out there and dance).

Finally, the third carol I call to your attention is one we all know and again refers to angels and shepherds, “Angels We Have Heard on High.” Ace Collins is the author of a number of books on the genesis of songs, especially hymns and songs sung for Christmas and Easter. He points out in Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas, that while the carol was first published in 1855, parts of it can be found in religious services a hundred and fifty years earlier. Further, the line from the chorus: “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” translates to Glory to God in the highest and dates back to church worship in 130 A.D. Collins asks, “If the words in the chorus go back so far, might the author be someone who knew Jesus personally?” Was it someone whose strong belief in the unique birth of Christ and the heralding of shepherds by angels was easily put into a poem/song easy to write and easy to sing. We don’t have to accept this message, but it is certainly an interesting one.

* * *

Thanks for the opportunity to discuss the songs that many of us grew up singing. I hope that all of this season’s carols bring you joy. And a mighty Merry Christmas.

And thanks to you, DOD, for such a great background piece on some of the oldest carols still in rotation. I feel so much more informed after reading this piece!

See you all back here tomorrow for another mysterious door to open.

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